Monday, April 19, 2010

A Chinese Perspective on the Influence of Christianity on Western Culture

Zhao Xiao is a Chinese economist and the author of a famous article entitled: "Market Economies With Churches and Market Economies Without Churches," which first appeared online in 2002 shortly after his return to China from a period in the United States. It has been reprinted in various magazines and is available online in a number of places. Xiao argues in this article that a market based economy does not work well without a foundation of morality and that morality is best fostered in a society by religion. He argues that much of the success of Western capitalism is actually due to the widespread influence of Christianity in society. In answer to the question of what is the biggest difference between America and China, he writes:

What makes the deepest impression on our countrymen about the US is the forests of skyscrapers that this country puts up, representing the high development of America's material culture. But skyscrapers are no longer scarce in China! It is evident that skyscrapers are not the greatest difference between China and the US.

Then, what about wealth? Without a doubt, the US is the world's richest country. In 2000, China's per-capita GDP was US$840, while America's was US$34,100; there is great disparity between the two. But considering that China's personal income levels are swiftly increasing, the wealth gap, though large, does not amount to the greatest difference between China and America.

Perhaps someone may suggest the gap in science and technology. However, China also possesses a great deal of high technology: for some time it has had the hydrogen bomb and the atom bomb, it sends rockets to the heavens, and it is developing a spaceship. So while a gap remains between the science and technology levels of China and the US, it is not an astronomical one.

Perhaps someone will suggest the financial gap. The pinnacle of the market economy is finance, and this is a weakness of China's market economy. In comparison, the US has the world's strongest financial system, and was the earliest to implement relaxations of financial controls to invite financial innovation. To date it has attracted 75% of the world's financial resources, making finance one of America's three superlatives (the others being sci-tech and political power). However, while China's financial system lags behind, looking across the country one finds banks as common as rice shops, securities firms promoting themselves everywhere, and ads for funds airing one after another during prime time on CCTV. So the financial gap between China and the US, while large, still does not amount to the greatest difference.

Then it must be a difference in the political and legal system. To be sure, there is a noticeable difference between China and the US in this area. However, the particular national conditions of the US and China are not very similar, and China is currently involved in a rapid transition and transformation. It is possible to imagine that a modernized China will inevitably move in the direction of an improved political and legal culture, and the prodigious experience and techniques of the US, as the the world's most developed country, have been taken as a model by the Chinese, who absorb everything. From this perspective, though reference can in fact be made to many areas in politics and law in China and the US, this still cannot be called the greatest difference.

Then where does the greatest difference between the US and China ultimately lie? My personal opinion: churches. Only in this area is the difference between China and the US not a question of numbers, but rather an essential difference between presence and absence. In the US, the spires of churches are more numerous than China's banks and rice shops. On a street near Harvard Square, I once stood and looked around to find that in three different directions there were three churches. Truth be told, from the east coast of the US to the west coast, from towns to cities, in any place you look you will find that this country's most numerous structure is none other than the church. Churches, and only churches, are Americans' center; they are the very core that binds Americans together.

The problem with markets without churches is that the lack of morality hobbles the economy:

Hobbled market ethics have already lead to two chronic ailments in Chinese society. First, becoming rich without relying on labor or on the creation of wealth for society, but rather relying on collusion between government and business and the malicious repurposing of public finances to gain wealth. Second, dishonesty in market trading: backing out of promises and gaining wealth through swindles. So we can see that the market economy in China has brought out a group of "freaks": day and night they ceaselessly seek personal profit through lies and harm. Naturally, this kind of market economy has a exorbitant cost. And naturally, what causes the exorbitant cost of these market operations is the widespread lack of self-restraint among Chinese people.

These days Chinese people do not believe in anything. They don't believe in god, they don't believe in the devil, they don't believe in providence, they don't believe in the last judgment, to say nothing about heaven. A person who believes in nothing ultimately can only believe in himself. And self-belief implies that anything is possible — what do lies, cheating, harm, and swindling matter? . . .

Market economies with churches are different in another respect from those without: in the former, it is much easier to establish a commonly respected system. The reason is simple: a people that share a faith, compared to people who only believe in themselves, find it easier to establish mutual trust, and through that to conclude agreements.
Xiao believes that Christianity is a major contributor to the success and well-being of Western culture. In a recent PBS interview Xiao reveals that although he was not a Christian in 2002 when he wrote the above article, he has since become a believer. When asked if he was optimistic if the Chinese Communist Party would be open to increased Christianity in China, he said:
We know that China’s constitution allows freedom of religion, so it should be said that the constitution has enough space for all kinds of beliefs, including Christianity. We also know that the Chinese Communist Party makes a point to seek truth from the facts and advance with the times. Within Marxist theory, the Communist Party is supposed to be the vanguard of the proletariat. But in China we really lack a mass of proletarians because, in those early years, the country did not undergo a phase of industrialization. And today, they are not only non-p roletarians ; they are the propertied classes.

So it is no longer a political party that is filled with revolutionary characteristics but rather one that has transformed into a ruling political party with widespread representation, advanced culture and advanced forces of production. This transformation comes from permitting these rich people, these propertied classes, and even, we can say, the bourgeoisie to join the party. We see that the Communist parties of the Soviet Union and all of Eastern Europe have collapsed, and their countries have collapsed with them. But the Chinese Communist Party survives precisely because it continues to change. That is why it is a great political party. And I believe that, on the matter of whether or not to permit those with religious beliefs to enter the Communist Party, I believe there will be a historical change in the future.

He also states the he has been surprised by the support he has been receiving from Chinese elites for his argument that Chinese society requires a foundation for morality and that Christianity could provide that foundation. When asked about his own journey, this is what he said:

From this point, I started to study the Bible. But my initial motivation for studying the Bible is not really pure. My purpose for studying the Bible was not to prove that there was a God. . . But after reading it for over three months, I admitted defeat. I discovered that this kind of book China does not have. China does have morality books. For instance, the Analects of Confucius teaches people morality. China also has very philosophical works, for example, Laozi. China also has many intelligent writings, for instance, the Buddhist texts. But China does not have a book like the Bible. The Bible is a book that claims inspiration from the will of God. It talks about the history of the relationship between God and human beings, and this kind of book does not exist in China.
What Xiao raises here is the connection between cultural health and economic success and morality and the necessity of religion as the foundation of morality. It all comes down to God. It seems very strange that Chinese communists can see what Western, liberal elites cannot see.

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